As his documentary “William Eggleston in the Real World” opens, director Michael Almereyda explains his decision to simply follow Eggleston as he scouts and photographs scenes in Mayfield, Ky. The approach, Almereyda says in voice-over, is to approximate the art of a photographer — to simply capture images and allow the viewer to assign meaning to them.
It’s these long, observational stretches of the 2005 documentary that best reflect the art of Eggleston, now considered one of the 20th century’s most important American photographers. Eggleston’s passion for catching nuance in seemingly obscure backdrops — “I am at war with the obvious,” he once said of his work — as well as his ability to capture his human subjects at moments of unthreatened intimacy are mirrored in the notoriously private photographer’s apparent comfort with being filmed.
“Of all the Eggleston documentaries, this one is the most personal; Almereyda had an amazing amount of access,” says Dean Otto, curator of film at Speed Cinema, where “William Eggleston in the Real World” will screen on Sunday, March 19. “You get a broader sense of Eggleston’s personality, and how that informed his work.”
The film is screening, free of charge, in conjunction of a current photography exhibit, “Southern Elegy,” which features a selection of Eggleston’s work from the collection of local collector (and recently named acting Speed director) Stephen Reily.
Reily met Eggleston in the ’90s when he visited the artist’s home in Memphis to acquire a number of photos. “We were pulling stuff out from under beds,” he recalls. He agrees that Almereyda’s film captures Eggleston’s personality, as he came to know him.
“He was usually drunk,” says Reily. “He was very handsome; he was larger than life. He was close, complicated.”
“In the Real World” follows Eggleston on trips to Kentucky and California, as well as his home in Memphis. Footage of him working is intercut with interactions with his two households (Eggleston was married and openly maintained a partnership with another woman), which are often subtitled due to Eggleston’s thick Southern drawl and intoxicated slur.
Almereyda provides some narrative on Eggleston’s career and art: his almost universally panned 1976 show at the MOMA in New York, which is now considered a watershed moment in color photography; his adoption of a “democratic” aesthetic in which he seldom shot the same frame twice and did not use contact sheets for selecting frames to print; and his experiments in music and avant filmmaking.
Some of these segments border on cognoscenti: The names of Eggleston’s influences and peers are dropped with little or no context for the uninitiated. But Almereyda always pulls back to an intimate moment. The film winds down with a conversation at a luncheonette in which Eggleston basically says he doesn’t think all that much about his approach, and then laments that no one has invented a dream-recording machine.
“William Eggleston in the Real World” screens Sunday, March 19, at 1 p.m. as part of the Free Owsley series at Speed Cinema. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, and Otto says attendance at the Free Owsley series has been near capacity or sold out.
A selection of black-and-white photos by Eggleston are on display at the cinema entrance. Reily says the photos are among the last Eggleston developed himself before adopting an expensive, commercial color development process that creates the vibrant color synonymous with his work. Eggleston’s color work is on display in the full “Southern Elegy” exhibit.